One of the most overlooked methods of cooking is now catching the attention of numerous scientists and health enthusiasts for its unparalleled health benefits.
What exactly are fermented foods and how long have they been around? Fermented foods go through the process of lacto-fermentation, which means preparing food so natural bacteria feed on inherent sugars and starches within the food, creating cell waste aka lactic acid. Swapping these sugars and starches with lactic acid produces enzymes, b-vitamins, omega 3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotics. By eliminating high sugar content and replacing it with such, the body is easier able to digest and absorb nutrients. This has been shown to improve the digestive system and prevent certain diseases.
Fermentation has been dated back to 7000-6600BCE and is one of the oldest methods of preparing and preserving food, with that being said, it has unfortunately been phased out of most modern diets, along with its nutritious benefits. Raw milk and yogurt have been replaced with pasteurized, pickles and sauerkraut have replaced with vinegar versions, even grains have been reduced to bland sources of pure carbohydrates, and the list goes on. Due to processed food, humans have lost touch with what eating and making real food consists of. To regain these skills it starts with knowledge, only after becoming educated on how to properly ferment and use other authentic methods of preparation; can we restore the benefits and connection to real food.
A scientific definition of fermentation taken from Wikipedia is “any metabolic process that releases energy from a sugar or other organic molecules, does not require oxygen or an electron transport system and uses an organic molecule as the final electron acceptor.” Starving cells of oxygen builds up numerous microorganisms, which convert sugar to acids, alcohol, or gasses. The most common method of this is by soaking food in salt water for a certain period of time.
There are lots of recipes to guide through creating lacto-fermentation. Below is a high-level overview of the materials, process, and types of food to ferment. But keep in mind; there are other resources available that are simpler than what’s stated below.
The Necessary Materials
- Mason jar. There are also special fermenting jars with air lids, but they are not required. Use glass or ceramic, as metal and plastic jars will corrode from the salt and acid build up.
- Chlorine free water. Chlorine kills bacteria that are needed in the fermentation process. To dechlorinate water, boiling works, or let water sit in an open glass for one day. Water that comes from a sink is chlorinated.
- Non-ionized salt so, Himalayan, pickling, and sea.
- The selected fermented food.
- A temperate dark place to store the jar and a refrigerator or cold place.
- A weight to submerge the food, this could be a cabbage or grape leaf. Some kits have glass weights to fit within mason jars
- There are special fermenting kits as well.
- Create brine by adding 11/2 tsp of non-iodized salt to every 2 cups of temperate water
- Put the food and other flavoring elements into the mason jar
- Pour brine into jar with selected food
- Add a cabbage leaf or another weight source to submerge the food under the salt water
- Close the lid, but not too tightly
- Let the jar sit for three-to-seven days in a dark place at room temperature. The longer the food sits, the more crispy it will be
- If any grime or mold appears at the top of the jar the lid can be removed to scrap this off, also make sure the food stays submerged
- Move to refrigerator or colder place and let sit for a week
- After a week, lacto-fermentation has happened and the food can be eaten. Properly fermented foods should have a sour and tangy taste
Examples of Fermented Foods
- Cucumbers – turn to pickles
- Fermented Juice
- Fermented Ketchup
- Pickled Vegetables
- Sourdough Bread
After reading all this history and process information about fermentation it is finally time to dive into its health benefits. Firstly, It is important to understand that there is a stomach to brain connection; so like in the brain, the stomach has millions of neurons in it. These neurons send regulatory signals to the brain passing information regarding imbalances, deficiencies, viruses, but also homeostasis. The nutrients and abundance of probiotics in fermented foods assist with regulating different chemicals in the body keeping everything clean and healthy. So exposing them to the right nutrients is extremely important. Scientific studies of fermented foods are starting to pick up the pace as trends are showing that incorporating more of the lacto-fermented bacteria into our guts enhance health and treat conditions that were previously thought untreatable or did not have easy alternatives. The extra exposure this good bacteria change has even shown to positively affect certain negative genetic predispositions.
Fermented foods have been shown to help depression and all around mental heath. In a study conducted by University of Maryland psychology professors, it was concluded that people are likely to have less social anxiety if they eat fermented foods; this study was particularly fascinating because it also showed decreased social anxiety in people genetically more prone to it. The good bacterium that comes with fermented foods has shown to increase the neurotransmitter GABA that controls anxiety and is often mimicked in anti-anxiety medicine. For people who have social anxiety and take medicine for it, simply eating fermented foods potentially could be a more effective in treatment.
Gut bacteria in the stomach are called microbiome and keeping them plentiful and healthy is key to vitality. In lacto-fermentation, the bacteria breaks down sugars and converts them to energy-giving nutrients before the body has to do any work. This takes the responsibility off organs that play part in the digestive process. And with the work already done to extract energy from food, the body can utilize more strength to absorb its full nutritional value, as well as preserve stomach strength and longevity.
It is estimated that 80% of the immune system is located in the gut. Another job of Microbiome is to nurture the immune system and essentially train those cells how to do their job. So the more microbiome consumed the stronger the immune system becomes. Frequent eaters of fermented foods, report fewer cases of illnesses such as colds, cases of flu, infections, viruses, etc.
Fermented foods are also strong chelators, which means they have properties that help detoxify. In relation to the body, this helps cleanse metallic toxins that may have been absorbed through food or environmental exposure.
Lastly, research is speculating that fermented foods could even work as a Parkinson’s disease treatment. This research is still in the works, but the evidence that comes from Caltech scientists is from observations that the cognitive degeneration of Parkinson’s may be rooted from composition changes in microbiome. Consuming fermented food and utilizing the good bacteria that comes with it may reverse some of its symptoms, but there is still much more research to be done. The official paper from the study can be found here.
In America, fermentation has been phased out of most people’s diets; real fermented food is not commonly served in restaurants or supermarkets. So to get the best-fermented food is to make it yourself, and while that may seem like an inconvenience, it is part of the beauty. Whether the driver to try fermented foods is curiosity, health benefits, or enjoying the taste; doing it yourself will restore an understanding of this method of food preparation that has been lost in time.